In this renowned epicurean destination, lesser known culinary traditions reveal true local flavour…
“Cinghiale – wild boar!” my waiter enthused, presenting a dish of pappardelle pasta bathed in a meaty ragù as if he were sharing photos of his first-born grandchild. He then told me how special it was to experience this Tuscan delicacy during the region’s short hunting season. Our casual exchange in a countryside trattoria proved serendipitous, serving as a catalyst for my ongoing culinary deep dive into Italy’s myriad ingredients, where I continue to unearth less celebrated morsels I might otherwise miss.
It’s no news flash that Italy has delicious food, but discovering the sheer scope of area specialties that go beyond familiar staples such as Parmesan, olive oil, and Chianti is like finding precious keepsakes in your grandmother’s attic. Each of Italy’s 21 regions showcases singular flavours and menus that have historically stayed within their own borders. To best understand those finds, you must go straight to the source, where a producer’s or purveyor’s passion is visceral, and their knowledge infuses every bite. “You’re not just sitting down at a restaurant and ordering a plate,” says Janet McLaughlin, a Cincinnati-based Virtuoso travel advisor who’s lived in both Venice and Rome. “Visiting area farms, factories, or vintners helps you better appreciate and understand each flavour, and all that goes into the making of these products.”
From the top of Italy’s boot down to its heel, the following regional tasting menu features five of your next favorite culinary treasures – along with interactive ways to experience them.
Piedmont — Cioccolato
If there was a chocolate Olympics, you might bet on Switzerland or Belgium, but, in a tasty surprise for travellers, Italy can lay claim to the gold. “The Piedmont region is especially well known for its fine Asti, Barbaresco, and Barolo wines,” says Summit, New Jersey-based Virtuoso advisor Ellen Hyman, but, she notes, its stylish capital, Turin, is a cioccolato lover’s paradise with an unsung past. The host of the 2006 Winter Olympics arguably became the birthplace of European chocolate in 1678, when its ruling Savoy family issued the continent’s very first chocolate license.
Also invented here: bicerin, a hot beverage of chocolate, espresso, and cream so iconic that the government granted it status as a traditional Piedmontese product. And, in the nineteenth century, Turin broke the mold – or rather, made the first one – transforming the melted elixir into a solid. Legend has it that not even Napoleon’s early nineteenth-century trade embargo cutting off cacao imports could thwart Turin’s devotion to confectionery innovation: The Piedmontese responded by creating gianduja (think Nutella), a chocolate paste that incorporated the region’s plentiful hazelnuts in order to stretch the limited cacao supply.
Today, Turin’s streets are still lined with confectioneries displaying everything from gold-wrapped gianduiotto to triple-layered cremino pralines in various flavours and liquor-imbued, mountain-shaped alpino. Tour artisan chocolate shops and factories that roast cacao beans and produce chocolate on-site, or visit the city in November for its annual chocolate festival, CioccolaTò (November 9 through 18 this year).
Emilia-Romagna — Culatello di Zibello
Encompassing the cuisine capitals of Bologna, Modena, and Parma, the Emilia-Romagna region is considered Italy’s food belt – and will likely require you to let yours out a notch or two. No product is more synonymous with the region than prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham), but the cured specialty new to many curious carnivores is culatello di Zibello. Often overlooked by travellers, prosciutto’s smaller, more delicate sibling tastes slightly brinier and sweet, with an aroma redolent of cellars humidified by the Po River’s rolling fogs, where the ham is aged. Damien Martin, a Virtuoso advisor from San Diego, explains why seeking it out is a must: “Culatello doesn’t travel well, so it doesn’t have the widespread recognition that prosciutto enjoys. That makes it more of a local delicacy, one of those things you have to experience in its own setting.”
Just outside culatello’s namesake town of Zibello, be sure to visit Antica Corte Pallavicina, a restored fifteenth-century castle whose working farm is devoted to preserving the region’s only native-bred black pig, the nera di Parma, from which the ham comes. An on-site museum details the history and production process of this heirloom salume, which the estate serves in both its Michelin-starred restaurant and its more casual eatery.
Tuscany — Sorbetto
When you’re traveling to Tuscany, gelato inevitably comes up in conversation. Few people, however, realize the significance of this sweet’s predecessor, sorbetto, to the region. Though historians debate whether the ice, fruit, and sugar concoction – which existed centuries before dairy was added to the mix – originated from Rome, the Far East, or Persia, it’s well documented that Italian aristocrats, such as Tuscany’s Medici family, served up sorbetto-imbued drinks to flaunt their status, the snow having been carted from the mountains pre-refrigeration. Caterina de’ Medici is said to have popularized the treat when she brought Ruggieri, winner of a contest for “the most singular dish that has ever been seen,” with her to France to share his simple sorbetto – and impress the French court with Italy’s culinary superiority.
Fortunately, sorbetto is no longer reserved solely for the upper crust, as Laura Ciccone, a Virtuoso advisor based in Hunt Valley, Maryland, can attest. She says sorbetto plays an integral role in Italian meals, where it’s served as a palate cleanser between courses. At her Italian grandmother’s Christmas Eve dinners, “My nonna always served lemon sorbetto after each fish course,” she recalls. Her must-do for the hilltop town of Cortona: “a mixology course with a bartender to learn how to blend spirits such as gin and triple sec with lemon sorbetto, which awakens the taste buds without shutting down the appetite.”
Le Marche — Verdicchio
If you haven’t heard of Le Marche, a region of voluptuous hills lying between the snowy spine of the Apennine Mountains to the west and more than 100 miles of Adriatic coastline to the east, you’re not alone: This is one of Italy’s least touristed areas. Here, aptly, a diminutive, little-known white-wine grape, verdicchio, reigns supreme.
To understand the subtleties of this native varietal, stroll through the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC (wine appellation), a string of fortified villages that drape around the medieval epicenter of Jesi, punctuated by ancient towers and impressive abbeys. A tasting with local vintners reveals a crisp, dry, mineral wine, with citrus and almond notes, that distinctively reflects its diverse microclimates. The grape’s high acidity lends itself to sparkling versions as well. Though verdicchio is not on most travellers’ wine racks, McLaughlin expects that, as more visitors head to the region for its beautiful beaches, they’ll fortuitously stumble across what wine critics are increasingly calling out as Italy’s best white.
Puglia — Burrata
Puglia has long appealed to travellers seeking out Italy’s rural wonders. Its whitewashed towns and secluded beaches skirted by citrus and olive groves are classically Mediterranean; on its urban side, Lecce’s baroque architecture mirrors Florence’s flair for the dramatic. But Puglia’s most lauded cheese, burrata, differs from its better-known cousins across the country in a way that reveals the region’s soul.
Having endured centuries of invasion – and its resulting impoverishment – by Greeks, Normans, Spanish, and Germans who sought to rule this geographically strategic post, resourceful and scrappy locals were forced to make the most of what limited ingredients they had. The resulting cuisine, cucina povera (literally, “poor kitchen,” or food of the poor) utilized humble seasonal ingredients – and absolutely nothing was wasted. Simple dishes such as lampascioni, pickled wildflower bulbs, and orecchiette con le cime di rapa, pasta with turnip tops grown in home gardens, became Puglia’s signature. Burrata originated as a way to use leftover scraps of buffalo mozzarella, which cheesemakers stuff, along with cream, into a pouch of more mozzarella that has been stretched very thin and then shaped into a ball.
Rustic, however, doesn’t mean untasty. A native Italian who now resides in Calgary, Virtuoso advisor Andrew De Angelis spent seven summers in Puglia as a child and has fond memories of its flavours. “My uncle used to serve burrata atop Pugliese focaccia, a pizza like bread made with mashed potatoes and spices,” he says. “It was delicious.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Virtuoso Traveler.